Ex-Google employee calls tech addiction an ‘existential threat' and calls for regulation

  • 'We're pointing the most powerful supercomputers in the world at our brains to suck the attention out of it,' says ex-Googler Tristan Harris.
  • Shaping people's attention and thoughts leads to shaping society and culture, he says.
  • A group of tech alum and experts are fighting for legislation and regulation of social media platforms such as Google and Twitter.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris said large tech companies have a "moral responsibility" when it comes to shaping billions of people's attention — one he believes they are abusing in favor of profits.

"We're pointing the most powerful supercomputers in the world at our brains to suck the attention out of it," Harris, who once worked as a design ethicist at Google, told CNBC. "Then if that stock price has to keep going up I have to actually point it at your kids."

"I actually genuinely view this as an existential threat," said Harris. "When you're shaping people's attention you're shaping their thoughts. Their thoughts precede action, and you're really shaping society and culture. ... There's an entire set of consequences when you shape people's attention through design."

In 2014, amid growing concern about technology's dominance in people's lives, Harris and a few other Silicon Valley tech alums founded the Center for Humane Technology, where Harris is executive director.

The group's mission: Fight the tech addiction.

"Everybody in your audience knows [about the problem] because they're addicted to their phones and concerned about some of the fallout," Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, told CNBC.

Steyer and Harris were on "Squawk on the Street" to talk about their combined efforts to realign technology with society's best interests.

"Technology is often exploiting how our minds work," said Harris, who said he first brought up the issue back in 2013 to colleagues at Google when he was employed there.

On Monday, Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology announced the Truth About Tech campaign, which aims to put pressure on the tech industry and alleviate some of the problems surrounding addictions to technology. Steyer and Harris were in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for Truth About Tech: How Tech Has Kids Hooked, a one-day conference that focuses on the impact of technology on children over time and the ethics of technology, among other things.

The tech industry's main objective is to maximize people's attention, Harris said. Tech companies and democracy's intentions are "fundamentally misaligned," he said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Harris said that on Twitter, which had approximately 330 million monthly active users in 2017, academic researchers estimate that 15 percent of users are bots.

"Most of us are interacting with these things every day and have no idea," Harris said of bots. "If researchers can figure this out, then why can't Twitter? Because their stock prices depend on them telling Wall Street, 'We've got this many users.'"

A spokesperson for Twitter pointed to a blog post the company wrote last month that said, "We recognize that Twitter is an important part of a larger ecosystem of how news and information spreads online, and that we have a responsibility to support external programs that empower our users, connecting them with resources to give them control over their online experience."